Because the New Orleans Parish Prison was under water, vehicles could not reach them at the doors. 6,000 to 8,000 prisoners (exact figures are impossible to know as all records were destroyed in the flood) were ferried by boat to the partially submerged Broad Street overpass of interstate-10. This site was used as a staging area for 72 hours while prisoners were shuttled in shifts to other Louisiana prisons by bus.
The images of this prison exodus are incredibly surreal.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault outlines a physics of disciplinary power--a power that seizes hold of the body of the prisoner through subtle techniques to gain access to his soul. Individuating cells provide opportunity for constant examination; a daily routine substitues institutional goals for individual wills; a system of rules and punishments constructs a clear hierarchy of obedience and consequence.
What happens when this physics of power is unsettled? When docile individuated bodies are transformed into a furious undifferentiated multitude?
Two word answer: riot police.
"At around 10PM I make it to the Broad St. Overpass via boat. What awaits me is beyond belief. There are thousands of inmates lined in a close sitting position. Armed guards continually encircling them," Inmate 56 continues. "I spend the entire night in this uncomfortable sitting position. It is impossible for any of us to sleep."
"Throughout the next day I witness all sorts of horror. Many inmates suffer being maced, shot at with bean bag guns, tasered, and I saw an old man being attacked by police K-9s simply because his limbs became numb and he needed to stretch. When we asked for water, they simply doused us with contaminated water. All the while they are drinking bottled water. I feel faint."
Sleep deprivation, stress poses, starvation, dehydration are also a way to create docile bodies. Attack dogs, pepper spray, and rubber bullets shock bodies into submission. The testimony of Inmate 56 is consistent with thousands of other questionnaires that inmates of the Parish Prison submitted to the ACLU. These inmate testimonies have also been corroborated by OPP deputies.
Gusman claims that he called in reinforcements from the state Department of Corrections when he received reports of extensive flooding in the prison. The Sheriff denies that there was ever a loss of order inside.
What deputies described is a complete breakdown in the chain of command:
"Deputy Foster reports similar confusion in the House of Detention. 'As the storm approached, [things became] chaotic. No one gave any orders. Everyone said, "I think we need to do this, I think we need to do that." Deputies were running the jail.' One deputy states: 'When we got there, they hadn't told us anything. They kept telling us they were waiting to see what the sheriff was going to say. No procedures, no safety precautions. No evacuation plan. The sheriff shouldn't be a head of nothing. Anytime a man can't even handle his employees. . . . I been there three years and I been through a whole lot." (ACLU Report, p. 57)Gusman has dismissed these stories from his own prison guards as "lies" and said, "the people making them are dis-gruntled ex-employees and possibly deserters." When asked by reporters about prisoners' testimonies he responded, "None of it was true. But when you put it in the paper it becomes more credible and it frustrates the hell out of me. Don't rely on crackheads, cowards and criminals to say what the story is."
The same Sheriff who said "we will keep our prisoners where they belong," made the disaster a centerpiece of his re-election campaign. "We stood at our posts. We did our duty, and we're proud of the job we did" he says in one of his radio spots.
Gusman made quite a showing at the scene of the spectacular evacuation. With cameras rolling, he rolled up his shirtsleeves, waded through floodwater to break open the doors to the women's prison, and shuttled prisoners on boats.
These images ended up in television commercials that got him re-elected. His opponent lost and relied on prisoner's testimonies of the chaos.
Of course, in the midst of the Katrina disaster, this Orleans Parish Prison debacle appears to be the result of a natural disaster. The Sheriff's spectacular evacuation looks like a heroic rescue mission. Many of the prisoners of Katrina had not been convicted of any crimes; you can't tell that by looking at them lined up on an overpass wearing orange jump suits. The imagination runs wild: what if they had escaped?
If it weren't for the fact that Gusman appears, by all accounts, to be a bungling idiot, it does seem a little orchestrated right? Expose a marginalized group of people to danger. Jump to their rescue when cameras are rolling. Deny the violence and danger ever occured. Make sure the only other eyewitnesses are "crackheads, cowards and criminals," or guards who "deserted" their post.
We needn't assert a conspiracy to make our point; the prisoners testimonies expose the cynical contradictions of political power very well.
After this whole ordeal, Warden Burl Cain, of the enormous Louisiana State Prison sent a letter to his colleague Sheriff Gusman, which the latter proudly posted to his re-election campaign website. "I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed working with you during the evacuation," Cain gushed on September 9, 2005, "none of us could have imagined that we would have such a devastating disaster." A betrayal, perhaps, of the lack of any emergency plans. "Finally, now that the evacuation is over we can laugh at you in the rubber boots and short pants."
"I look forward to working with you at Camp Greyhound. You'll try to reopen, and I'll keep the jail for you until you do."